Encanto and Family Systems Theory
Disney’s Encanto has had family therapists buzzing ever since it came out in November 2021. Honestly, this movie just made our jobs easier. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a clear and engaging reference for talking about family systems. Lin-Manuel Miranda over and over has shown such a keen sense about how human relationships work through his lyrics and music. The way characters sing over each other, and quickly say things that you might just miss the first time if you aren’t paying close attention really brings them to life. The character expression in this movie, especially in the songs, makes them feel so alive I can easily picture this family in a therapy session together.
This blog post is one of many exploring Encanto from a family systems perspective. In this contribution, I am focusing on how each of the songs depicts a concept from the “father” of family therapy, Dr. Murray Bowen’s, original concepts. For more information about Bowenian System’s Theory, here is a brief overview from the Bowen Center for Study of the Family:
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please be aware that there may be spoilers in my examples below.
Bowenian System’s Concepts Illustrated by The Songs of Encanto
Relevant to all of these Bowenian concepts illustrated in Encanto is the goal of Differentiation. Differentiation means that a person experiences a healthy balance of feeling whole as an individual and also connected to their family members. The opposite of differentiated is “undifferentiated.” Experiencing Cut-Offs or Enmeshments can both be undifferentiated because differentiation is about balance and not going to either extreme.
A genogram is like a therapeutic combination of a family tree and a family diagnostic assessment. When depicting the family, we look at several generations. Ideally as far out, or farther, as the “identified patient’s” grandparents. Genograms show family structure, family roles, individual issues within the family, and family dynamics.
In “The Family Madrigal” we learn about the family structure, individual qualities and roles, and some dynamics such as who is close and who has conflict.
Family Projection Process
In short, the family projection process is how we talk about older generations’ values, strengths, fears, and anxieties affecting their view and behavior toward the younger generations. Depending on the view, this process can help or hurt the child. The child can either be seen disproportionately as a “problem child” or a “golden child” depending on what the older generation is projecting on to them.
In “Waiting on a Miracle,” Mirabel is reacting to the family value that you must have a magic power to help and belong in her family. Since she has no magical talent, she is seen as a problem and doesn’t feel like she belongs. As we see through the film, this projection process creates a whole system of anxiety for the family.
Fusion occurs when a family member takes on the anxieties of others to the point that they lose themselves. It creates an unmanageable amount of stress for the individual and also enables disfunction in the family system.
In “Surface Pressure,” Luisa sings about the intense pressure of carrying so many family burdens. In the song’s bridge she dreams of living a more differentiated life where she could let go of family pressures and take better care of herself.
Cut-Offs can be both physical and emotional, or just emotional. They occur when the family system cannot handle the anxiety of maintaining a connection with one or more of its members, so it shuts people out. This is a reflection of the system itself and not the individual(s) it is shutting out.
In “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the family sings about how this member is both physically and emotionally cut off from the family to the point they (unsuccessfully) avoid even talking about him. The family sings about the anxieties this member brings up for them. As we learn, failing to resolve these issues and connect with this family member harmful effect on everyone.
Again, differentiation means being able to feel both whole individually and connected to your family. It means breaking free from becoming an exact replica of previous generations, molded by their values. Differentiation means you find your own unique, often creative, existence. Bowen theory recognizes that even just one person differentiating themselves can begin the healing process for the entire family system. Once someone differentiates themselves, it makes it hard for the family system to continue churning along with the same patterns of disfunction.
In “What Else Can I Do?,” Isabel breaks free of the perfectionism projected onto her by her family. She celebrates with a burst of vitality and creativity. She and her sister reconcile tension, and together stand up to dysfunctional family processes. This ultimately breaks the old dysfunctional family system so that they can build a healthier one.
With intergenerational trauma, the anxiety created from the older generation’s trauma affects the younger generations. Family healing requires either the older generation to heal and make amends, or for the younger generation to recognize the challenges experienced by the older generation and work towards forgiveness, acceptance, and differentiation. When both generations can engage in healing, we have a miracle!
In “Dos Orugitas,” Abuela is able to recognize how her trauma has affected the family. She is able to make amends for the harmful pattern of behavior towards her family, especially her granddaughter, Mirabel. Mirabel expresses understanding of all that her Abuela went through, and the two experience a beautiful reconciliation.